I’ve observed over the years that not all advertising schools get students working on their portfolios right away. Some schools focus on ad theory first, leaving portfolio development until much later in the program.
I’ve never understood why it’s done this way. To me, training to be an ad person is a little like training to be an athlete or a musician – and if you’re taking tennis lessons or piano lessons, you will be asked to demonstrate your skills, however weak they might be, right from Day One. I suspect if young musicians were required to learn theory before actually playing, this world would have far fewer musicians and a lot less great music.
But the larger problem with a delay in portfolio development is that it flies in the face of our industry’s standards and expectations. No agency – good or bad – will hire a creative person because of a diploma or certificate from an ad school. Every agency will look to your portfolio as the key indicator of your talent and potential. So it would seem obvious that the earlier you start on your book, the better your final product will be.
This is particularly true because portfolio development always takes a lot longer than anyone expects. Several years ago, a colleague of mine set about revising his book, and it took him six months to finish. And remember, this was a guy who already had several good ads and awards to his credit.
My best advice to you is to start working on your book as soon as possible, regardless of when your school requires it. This article will help. It first appeared on I Have an Idea in November of 2005. I’ve revised it slightly, mostly because I’m less down on puns than I used to be.
The late film critic Pauline Kael once wrote that she never lost her childlike enthusiasm for movies, even though watching them was her job. Each time the house lights dimmed, she still felt a rush of anticipation over what the next two hours might bring.
Miss Kael did not go on to describe how her feelings would change once the movie started, but I can guess. I’m thinking that nine times out of ten, that happy hopefulness would leak out abruptly, leaving her crumpled in her seat like a soufflé baked in a thunderstorm.
And that is roughly what it’s like for most creative directors viewing most portfolios. When they lift the faux-leather cover to expose the first plastic sleeve, they’ll never reveal what is in their hearts, but it’s there all the same: an unabashed yearning to see greatness. Greatness wrapped in freshness. Greatness delivered with a deft touch that restores their love and hope for this business and all the life-affirming things it can achieve.
And then they see your first ad. The one with the condom. Or perhaps the one with the pun. (Or perhaps, as I saw a few years ago, the ad with the condom and the pun.)
And that’s when the soaring anticipation departs. Yes, in body, the creative director is still flipping the acetate pages, but in soul, he’s every bit as dead as Pauline Kael. You have stolen the Shetland pony from his inner child, and by God, you are going to pay.
In some countries, the creative director might punish you with blunt cruelty. I cannot speak authoritatively about this, because I live in Canada, where we’re much more compassionate about these things. In Canada, he’ll opt instead to make you feel encouraged. He’ll murmur appreciatively at anything vaguely approaching an idea. He’ll suggest a deletion or two in the kindest possible terms. He’ll end the meeting by tousling your hair and urging you to keep pushing.
What he won’t say is that you can use his name to get time with other CDs in town. What he won’t say is that he’s eager to see how your work develops over the next six months, so please stay in touch. And through the things he doesn’t say, there’s a message you should be getting loud and clear, albeit in Canadian: the quality of your work is buried deeply in the fattest part of the bell curve, and if you don’t move it to the desirably thin end of the chart, your ad career will be spent inputting the price points on pizza flyers.
Make no mistake. This brand of kindness is ultimately the most cruel because it leaves the young creative satisfied with a mediocre book that’s indistinguishable from the hundreds of other mediocre books floating around town. It is equivalent to letting someone leave the house with spinach in his teeth or a mucosal crouton lodged in one nostril.
To get the job you want, you must differentiate your work from what your peers are presenting. To start, you must avoid the top ten mistakes in portfolio development.
FAILING TO TAKE THE HINT WHEN IT’S TIME TO PULL AN AD
Sometimes, the hint is obvious. The creative director says, “I think you should take this ad out of your book.” If you hear that more than once, please take the advice.
But sometimes the hint is less obvious. The CD will praise an ad mildly or say nothing at all. That kind of lukewarm response tells you that your ad is doing nothing to make your talent stand out, and you should consider replacing it.
I can hear what you’re thinking right now: “Wait a minute. I don’t have a single ad that’s been strongly praised by a creative director. Are you saying I have to replace every single ad in my book?”
That is what I am saying.
Maybe not this weekend, but definitely over the next few months. Remember, when a CD describes your work as “solid,” it’s almost never meant as a compliment.
INVESTING MORE IN THE EXECUTION THAN YOU DID IN THE IDEA
Several years ago, I saw a junior writer whose portfolio was not good at all. What made our meeting even more uncomfortable was the way he defended every sad page in his book. This guy was particularly intent on arguing the merits of a nonsensical ad that happened to be nicely illustrated. When I suggested that he pull the ad from his book, he got angry and told me he didn’t want to because…wait for it…the illustration had cost him 300 bucks!
If you have an idea for a portfolio piece, and you think you need more than lunch money to bring it to life, there should be loud warning bells sounding in your head. First of all, the truest test of a great idea is its ability to communicate even when rendered with stick-figure drawings. (Luke Sullivan illustrated this point quite literally in his classic book, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.)
Secondly, to improve your book substantially, you should get into the mental habit of seeing your ads not as part of a permanent collection, but rather, as disposable and easily replaced with better ads. This trick of the mind will serve you well throughout your career, because the most successful ad people are the ones who can return to the well time after time without fearing that it’s going to run dry.
ARGUING WITH THE PERSON WHOSE FEEDBACK YOU’VE SOLICITED
This one is as puzzling as it is common. Somebody makes an appointment, ostensibly to get advice and criticism that will result in an improved book. But it quickly becomes clear that this person is prepared to hear only good things about his or her work. If you recognize yourself in this description, you need a different way of reacting to criticism, preferably one that involves smiling and nodding and saying, “I see.” The fact is, anyone who argues during a portfolio viewing is displaying a personality that is ill suited to the realities of agency life. Our best ideas get rejected every single day, often for reasons that are exasperatingly stupid. Smart ad people don’t waste time or energy prolonging the argument. They go back and they dig a little deeper. I think it was Lee Clow who said, “The best revenge is a better ad.”
I also believe this argumentativeness often comes not from a passionate belief in our ads, but from the secret terror that we won’t find any other ideas to replace the lame ones on view. This very isolating malaise is actually shared by more people than you’d think. I’ll discuss some solutions in the final section of this article.
INCLUDING SCRIPTS FOR TV OR RADIO
It’s been said that a play exists only when it’s performed. The same goes for a TV or radio commercial. Without the nuances of performance, sound design, editing and so forth, your script might not even be understood, let alone admired. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever tried to figure out an award-winning spot just from the script that’s printed in the annual. If all you have is a book with good, clear print and interactive ideas, you already have everything you need.
FAILING TO SHOW THAT YOU’RE COMFORTABLE HANDLING COPY
The past fifteen years have been very kind to us copywriters. We’ve been able to fit the copy for a year’s worth of print on the back of a bar bill, with room left over to calculate the tip. In the era of the visual pun, most of the responsibility for execution has been offloaded to art directors and Photoshop.
But to build an impressive book, you must show that you’re able to write more than six words of copy at a time. This is partly because visual puns are now commonly dismissed as lazy and formulaic. More to the point, though, the ad with six words of copy does not reflect the reality of what ad agencies spend most of their time doing. When you start agency life, you may be surprised at how often you’re asked to write direct mail, online content, retail ads and so on – all of which will require you to craft paragraphs or pages of copy that is concise, logical and persuasive. This basic skill could once be taken for granted among copywriters, but it’s become so depressingly rare that it must now be demonstrated in your book.
Here are a couple of tips to make the task less daunting. First, remember that writing is almost always improved by editing. So, if your art director needs 250 words for the layout, discipline yourself to write at least 400. Then start trimming. As the fat drops away from your sales argument, you will start to see ways to tighten your copy and make it stronger than it would have been had you just stuck to 250 words from the start.
Another tip: buy yourself a copy of The National Enquirer or some other supermarket tabloid. Once you’re done parsing evidence of the latest celebrity meltdown, turn to one of the full-page ads for weight-loss gimmicks, copper bracelets or psychic guidance. Don’t laugh. The people who write these ads know what they’re doing. They have to sell 500 Praying Hands figurines every week, and they’re sure not going to do it on looks.
These guys have figured out how to present a compelling written sales argument – to people who can barely read! You’ll never see these writers in Cannes, but you would do well to study their techniques. You will start to get a feel for how to build your copy in such a way that factual logic (“Only 500 of these exquisite plates will be crafted!”) works in tandem with emotional logic (“What could be more charming than the sight of a toddler who’s collapsed, exhausted, in a basket of dachshund pups? Now imagine having that scene preserved forever on your very own Collectors’ Edition plate!”). You will also learn how to take what is essentially one long argument and break it up into digestible bits that allow the reader to feel more in control of her decision. You will see how the subheads that divide up the copy actually deliver a kind of shorthand version of the sales pitch so that the main message is gleaned even by those who won’t read the body copy. You’ll also see how the core message gets echoed in the little captions accompanying the many copy-warming visuals. If you think these techniques are solely the province of mail-order bottom-feeders, you are mistaken. Your first brochure for Prada or Mercedes-Benz will go a lot more smoothly if you’re not too proud to learn from The Franklin Mint. The only differences are in the level of diction and graphic sophistication. That’s all.
DIGGING DEEPER INTO ANNUALS THAN YOU DO INTO YOURSELF
As a child, hockey great Wayne Gretzky got some brilliant advice from his father: “Don’t skate to where the puck has been – skate to where it’s going to be.”
Many creatives won’t sit down to work without a stack of annuals by their side. They are effectively circling places where the puck hasn’t been seen for, oh, about five or six years now.
Relying on annuals actually makes it harder to write ads. You may well end up with nothing more than an acute awareness of all the great ideas that can’t be used because they’ve already been done.
No less an authority than Bob Barrie has gone on record as discouraging the use of annuals in creative development. He prefers browsing through stock photography for his inspiration. Clearly, it’s worked okay for him.
FAILING TO RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO INDULGE IN PUNS
Here’s what I said about puns in 2005:
Everyone who knows enough to visit this site knows that you’re not supposed to have puns in your book. Everyone knows that they’re corny and dated and sad. And yet every junior book has at least one. This is because puns are the crack cocaine of advertising. They fill us with the euphoric certainty that nothing has ever been so funny, and that this tumescent boil of brilliance deserves to be lanced in public.
But before you succumb to that impulse, please make yourself aware of how high the bar is set, and of the risks in attempting to clear it. I offer for your consideration three award-winning puns from that golden age of copywriting, the 1980s. This first headline appeared in an ad for Honda (for the Accord, I believe):
This next one promoted a $29 pair of sunglasses:
A shade under $30.
This final line was written to sell tickets for the One Show awards dinner:
Another great evening of whining and dining.
You know what? These are really good headlines. They’re funny and clear, and #1 and #3 are actually quite insightful.
But you know what else? Even if you manage to match the quality of these lines with a pun of your own, you are not likely to be praised for your humour and insight. You’re much more likely to hear the creative director clear his throat and say, with a grimace, “Um…hasn’t anyone ever told you that you shouldn’t have puns in your book?”
This will leave you trying to decide whether you should apologize for the ad or just sit there grinning sheepishly. You’re better off disciplining your ad selection so that you never have to do either.
Update: I have relaxed my views on puns. This is because it seems unfair to declare them off-limits to writers at a time when art directors are punning like crazy through their visuals. So here’s my thinking today (excerpted from my ebook, which you can download for free here):
Perhaps, rather than avoiding puns altogether, we should just avoid the lame ones. But how do you do that? One method was suggested to me by my first boss, the late Jerry Goodis, who had been the most famous and influential ad person in Canada during the 1960s and 70s. I had brought Jerry a layout featuring a particularly egregious pun, and he handed it back to me, saying, gently, “It has to kick both ways. If you’re going to do a pun, it has to kick both ways.” What Jerry meant was that the pun has to make sense no matter how you read it. A good example of a pun that kicks both ways is the tagline for John Deere tractors: “Nothing runs like a Deere.” Actually, there are two puns in that line (“runs” and “Deere”), but all the possible interpretations coexist peaceably with the brand.
I believe an advertising pun works best when both interpretations refer positively to what you’re selling. There is a chain of stores in Toronto called The Running Room. Their tagline, “From Start to Finish,” says not only that the store will prepare me for a race in literal terms, but also that they’re the only source I need for everything related to running.
One pun that didn’t hold together was found in a headline used by not one, but two different brands of convertibles during the 1980s: “To air is human.” The line worked fine if one read it to mean, “To want the wind in your hair is perfectly normal.” But if it were read as “To err is human,” it suddenly became a disconnect with the shot of people having fun in their car. Thus, the pun did not kick both ways, which would explain why I saw these ads in magazines, but not in award shows.
INCLUDING ANY AD CONCERNING SPOUSAL ABUSE, SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES, CRYSTAL METH OR DOGGIE DAYCARE
The reasons for avoiding these ads actually contradict each other. On one hand, pro-bono and boutique clients are deemed to be more inherently interesting than, say, dishwasher detergent or shaving cream. So, the reasoning goes, you’re making it too easy on yourself. You’re not demonstrating that you know how to create attention for the sorts of clients you’re most likely to be serving.
On the other hand, the best work in the pro-bono category shows that it’s anything but easy. The bar is set so high that anything falling short will look doubly inept.
Whatever argument you buy, you will have a more impressive book if you avoid this well trodden turf.
FAILING TO CHECK SPELLING
Creative directors aren’t typically pedantic, but they sure understand the implications of spelling mistakes in your portfolio. If you’re not double-checking your work when you have all the time in the world, how careful will you be when you’re scrambling to meet a deadline?
Checking spelling is quite different from using Spell Check. Spell Check cannot clear up any uncertainty you might feel around the following words:
their they’re there
I could go on, but I’m sensing your fatigue. Let me refresh your spirit with a little story.
Many years ago, I worked with a respected copywriter who managed to misspell a word in the headline of a four-colour ad. The film house (ask your parents) had to do a whole new set of separations for a bunch of different publications. The bill was something like $8,000. The agency chose to compound its embarrassment by asking the client to split the cost. You approved the final art, the agency argued, and so the mistake is partly your fault. Not surprisingly, the client disagreed. You presented yourselves as communications professionals, he said, and I took you at your word. If your writers can’t spell, that’s not my problem.
And so the agency swallowed the write-off, and the writer got treated to a full and frank monologue from our creative director. Some of you will no doubt feel this was unfair, that the writer’s serenity should not have been pierced by these petty workaday concerns, that the quality reaming-out should have been reserved for the proofreader in the studio. Maybe you’re right. But any time you’re involved in an $8,000 write-off, believe me, you’ll be invited to share in the blame.
For those of you who remain unconvinced, here’s one final thought. The creative director will have an easier time finding money for your raise if you haven’t already blown it in write-offs.
TREATING YOUR PORTFOLIO AS A DESTINATION INSTEAD OF A JOURNEY
This is by far the most common mistake. It afflicts people at every stage of their careers, but it will hurt you most when you are young and unknown.
Putting together a portfolio is exhausting and time-consuming. When you’re finally done, you will feel as if you’ve run a marathon with an anvil strapped to each thigh. Because you are a normal human being, you will feel no desire to experience this pain ever again.
And because you don’t wish to feel more pain, you will keep ads in your book longer than you should (Mistake #10). You will quarrel with those who criticize your work (Mistake #8). You will overspend on your ideas so that you have an excuse for hanging on to them (Mistake #9).
And so you’ll go, quite convinced of the rightness of your approach, but also quite unemployed.
To get out of this mess – or avoid it in the first place – you must find a way to produce more ideas. To do that, you must find a way to counter the pessimism so common among those who have to be creative on demand. Earlier in this article, I described a mental habit, a trick of the mind, that treats great ideas as being easy to generate. I called it a trick of the mind because everybody knows it’s not true. Nobody actually thinks ideas are easy. And so we must find a way to fool ourselves, if only for a while. This is why coaches give pep talks before every game. This is why corporations spend zillions of dollars on motivational speakers. Does positive thinking guarantee success? Um, no. But it works a lot better than despair.
There’s a book you might find helpful in adopting this trick of the mind. It’s The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I must warn you, though: if touchy-feely New Age rhetoric annoys you, you will find this book remarkably irksome. In fact, you should just skip over the next paragraph right now, because what I’m about to say will make you feel like you’re prepping for a colonoscopy. No, seriously. I’ll meet you down the page in a minute.
Okay, so here’s the deal. Julia Cameron worked in Hollywood for many years as a screenwriter. She suffered from severe writer’s block, and began drinking heavily with the idea that it would make her more creative. Eventually, she realized that alcohol was actually making things worse, and so she entered a twelve-step program. It was there that Cameron began to develop the theory that all forms of creative blockage are, like alcoholism, a disease of the soul and a way of avoiding unendurable emotional pain. So, she reasoned, if Alcoholics Anonymous works for drinkers, why not have a similar program for the blocked artist? (To Cameron, the term “artist” can apply equally well to a writer, painter, plumber or chartered accountant.) And so she created a twelve-step program to get all of us to believe in our creativity again, or believe in it for the first time in our lives. Central to her ideas is the notion that we must reacquaint ourselves with our natural creativity by subjecting it to a daily workout. Thus, we’re asked to keep a journal in which we force ourselves to write daily. The writings can be good, bad or beyond awful. It doesn’t matter, just as long as we keep doing it. As with strength training, what’s excruciating at the start eventually becomes almost effortless. A way of applying this technique directly to advertising is to make yourself write three to five ads every day. There are no rules. Puns are a-okay. Do ads for any client you like – heck, even a condom manufacturer. Then, shove your scribbles in a drawer and don’t look at them for a month. The exercise will help you get used to generating creative on demand – something you’ll be asked to do daily once you’re hired.
To those of you who’ve rejoined us, a hearty welcome back! There’s another technique available for generating ads, and it’s one you might find more practical and palatable. It involves approaching your portfolio as you would a musical instrument or a sport. If you sat down at your piano or went to the driving range just three or four times a year, your hopes of excelling would be rightfully modest. Yet people who visit their portfolios that infrequently still think the quality of their work is competitive. As an experiment in terror, why not try “practising” your book for half an hour every day? You will be surprised at how quickly you improve.
And if you do choose to think of your book as a musical instrument, I have some additional reassurance to offer. I’ve been taking guitar lessons for something like ten years. It’s always difficult and sometimes discouraging. So a while ago, my teacher took pity on me and scribbled out a couple of charts to show me how learning music differs from other kinds of learning.
This first chart reflects how most people develop expertise in math or history or macramé. You study, you build on acquired knowledge to gather even more knowledge, and over time, your skills and confidence increase.
By contrast, the learning curve in music looks more like a broken staircase:
To progress in music, you have to tolerate long periods when you’re sure you’re not making any progress at all. As a matter of fact, there will even be times (as highlighted above in blue) when you feel your skills are actually in decline. But these are the moments when you should feel most hopeful, because they typically come right before sudden spurts of new ability. I believe our skill in making ads develops in much the same way. The time you invest in thinking about your portfolio will never go to waste. It may not offer an immediate payoff, but it’s still part of what will take you to your next plateau.
To the outsider who wants in, advertising seems as nasty as a high school clique. You’re told that you will win or lose based on merit, but no one can tell you exactly how your merit will express itself. It’s either in your book or it isn’t.
But the comforting truth is that improving your book has less to do with talent than it does with tenacity. And pigheaded determination will serve you long after you get your first job. Sometimes, advertising is about taking a good brief and turning it into great ads. More often, though, it’s about recognizing small opportunities that twinkle faintly amidst imperfect circumstances. It’s about seizing those opportunities and refusing to let go until you’ve taken them as far as they can possibly go. It’s about cultivating the kind of personal initiative that used to be called gumption. That’s what advertising is really about. Ask the people who are in it.
They just might quote Pauline Kael: “Where there is a will, there is a way. If there is a chance in a million that you can do something, anything, to keep what you want from ending, do it. Pry the door open or, if need be, wedge your foot in that door and keep it open.”